A playfully glib, velvety little drum ‘n’ bass arrangement forms the sheet on top of which vocalist Daniel Langthasa namedrops multiple militant groups active in the northeast region of India, on Digital Suicide’s recently-released song #OPERATIONALLOUT, part of a trilogy of singles (#NOSTATENOREST and #AKHUNI the other two) they put out online. NSCN, NDFB, UPDS, PLT, DHDJ, HPCD, ULFA, PREPAK. The musical direction they’ve taken is angry. They’re pissed off. They’re indignant and they’re using music as a way to reach out to people.
Digital Suicide is a three-piece electronic/comedy/rap/alternative band from Assam (they call it “mutton rap”, which could mean anything, really) comprising Langthasa on guitars and vocals and bassist/producer Dpak Borah, both of whom form the core songwriting team, with Simanta Choudhury on drums. They’ve been around, on and off, since 2009, going through life as an alternative band, an alternative reality as an oddball electronica duo in the vein of Daft Punk, and a delightful little collaborative experiment where they called themselves Mr India. The two are now back in Haflong, a stunning town in Assam which is also the state’s only hill-station, and the place has helped them discover an identity of their own, one that’s equal parts uproarious and seething.
“We’re really bad with deadlines; we change our minds all the time,” says Langthasa, talking about their disdain for intricate studio trickery at the cost of soul in music. “This time was an experiment. We decided that we’ll finish recording one song in only one day, no matter what. Otherwise we’ll never be happy. Our town is full of parks, and we were just recording on the go.” So, the hypnotic, bouncing rhythmic fluidity of #NOSTATENOREST is the result of a plug-and-play recording session in a park. The drums may owe some allegiance to hip-hop, but the graceful sense of cadence was achieved following an evening spent at the yearly harvest festival in Haflong. “We have a lot of tribal music here. There’s this tribal beat that was played on loop for hours and people were dancing throughout, and Dpak thought that this is what we should do.”
#NOSTATENOREST, like the other new songs, is a piercing composition tackling apathy, democracy, racism, civil war, terrorism and religion. While it’s concealed behind layers of self-deprecating humour and surface comedy, about porn, about an inability to rap, about Bollywood, the rage and exasperation finds its way through. It’s a refreshing approach to music, downplaying the overstated virtues of overproduction, instead focusing on simplicity of songwriting, catchy rhythms and melodies and a spirit of protest as a sinuous form over rigidity.
The physical space they exist in — Haflong, their hometown — plays a strong role in their music. “The anger and the lyrics have been developing for quite some time,” says Langthasa. “One of the reasons I started writing songs was because of the political situation here. Insurgency is a very big problem in our town. You see, I’ve lived most of my life here. It’s a small, beautiful hill-station, a very peaceful place. It was unique — full of different tribes, different cultures. Till my teenage years.”
Langthasa is 31 now and has seen the deterioration of this once idyllic town into an aggressive, hate-filled, faux-warzone. These are things we don’t often read about it mainstream media, but they’ve affected the people of the region significantly. Around the turn of the century, things began to take a turn for the worse — the tranquility of Haflong was disrupted. “The borders [of Haflong] are porous. Within a span of two or three years, there were five or six militant organisations, comprising of ethnic tribes from neighbouring villages. They were going around, looting and extorting at all the districts. My own tribe, the Dimasa tribe, they were settlers there, and they started to fight their own. And then it got much worse when the killings began. They were getting weapons and funds. The state doesn’t care much about our town.”
In 2007, Langthasa lost his father to the violence. “He was ambushed. For no reason, man. Not only him, in that year there were many more such incidents. It became very political. Parties were using this to influence people and create more tension.” Three years before that, a close uncle of Langthasa’s was shot dead in broad daylight. Apparently, in retaliation, a rival militant organisation, belonging to the same tribe as his uncle, went and killed a prominent leader. “That’s when people started fleeing from the town. Everyone left — my younger brother, my younger sister, they all left. Many of the local families left and most of them haven’t returned. It has changed the whole landscape. The fear… corruption has increased, and funds meant for development are disappearing.”
The lyrical content, particularly, has resonated with the youth — “the younger generation is really connecting with the music” — even though they’ve been picky about gigging, instead choosing to settle into a rhythm and write more material. “We haven’t really played any concerts here, but we’re putting up a show on 29 March in Haflong. We’re bringing other bands too, mostly local bands, but we’re also looking at bringing friends from Shillong and other places to join in.” Fans have been listening to the music online, and Langthasa sounds grateful for the support they’ve received, citing messages on Facebook from young people about how the music has inspired them. Langthasa has also started an N.G.O. in Haflong with a friend, called Tryst Network, as a way of establishing a stronger arts community in the town, while he and Borah intend on starting music schools there as well to increase the engagement the youth has with the arts.
In addition to the political scenario of the region, Langthasa tends to also speak about race, albeit sprinkled with satire and comedy. I am a ch*nky high on mainstream / Bollywood on my radio / Sowed and raped a roadkill / Just YouPorn my video, as the words on #NOSTATENOREST proclaim, before segueing into Madarc**d zamanaa, among other things. “To be honest,” he admits, “I haven’t faced as much racism. I haven’t been called a ch*nky that often; but the thing is, most people have.” He has an almost philosophical view on the matter: “If people think we’re ch*nkies, I think we should embrace it so that people become comfortable with it. There’s no point fighting against it; people will still keep doing that. I think it’s fine if we become okay with that. I’ve discussed this with a lot of people — even Pezo Kronu of Street Stories [from Shillong] — and I feel we should get together and embrace it, and people will stop. As for us, it makes us less insecure.”
That sense of self ties in neatly with the musical identity Digital Suicide have created. His earlier style of singing, Langthasa feels, was “very influenced”. It’s no secret that many (most) English-music bands in India tend to sound like their favourite international singers, with American or English accents to boot. The number of Dave Mustaine and Eddie Vedder voice-clones in India is frightening. “I just thought I should be more honest and sing the way I speak. My English is very weak,” he laughs. “And the Hindi we speak in Haflong is broken. I just thought, ‘Let’s mix that and sing with the accent I really have.’ I shouldn’t try too hard. I became more comfortable and confident once I wrote a couple of lines. I don’t consider what I do ‘rapping’. It’s just that, sometimes… you sometimes need to say more. Really, anything goes.”
(Listen to their singles on www.youtube.com/user/digitalsuicid3.)